I’d been looking for a new challenge, so I was excited when Andrea Malek, co-president of Na’amat Ottawa, invited me to join her new dragon boat racing team. Andrea became interested in dragon boating after seeing how much fun her husband had last year when he participated in the Tim Hortons Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival. The Na’amat Newbies women’s team comprised a dozen members of Na’amat Ottawa, including co-president Danielle Schneiderman and Na’amat Canada National President Sarah Beutel, as well as members’ friends. Most of the team members had no experience with dragon boating.
The Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival is the largest festival of its kind in North America, with approximately 200 teams and 75,000 spectators. Dragon boat teams consist of 20 paddlers who sit in rows of two in a 20-metre long boat. In addition, a drummer sits in the bow and calls out the paddling commands while banging a drum. A steer person guides the boat from the stern. Each team competes in two heats against seven other teams. The fastest teams proceed to the finals.
At our first team meeting in May, guest speaker Lisa Rosenkrantz, an experienced dragon boater from the top fundraising team, explained that the key to successful dragon boating is synchronization. This is accomplished through proper paddling technique, obeying the drummer’s commands and paddling in unison with the person seated directly in front of you.
When Lisa asked us to outline our individual goals for dragon boating, responses included winning, not finishing last, raising money for the event’s charities, and having fun. We all agreed we didn’t want to fall out of the boat!
Our first time out on the Rideau River at Mooney’s Bay was an adventure. We hired an experienced steer person to instruct us. We learned the commands, such as “ready ready” and “paddles up,” and we practised paddling. At our second session, brave teammate Ilana Novick volunteered to be our drummer, which entailed precariously perching backwards on a tiny, elevated seat. Eventually, we simulated a 500-metre race in three minutes and 28 seconds, which is considered slow. By the third practice, we’d improved our synchronized paddling. Meanwhile, our matching team shirts had arrived. If we weren’t going to win, at least we’d look good. At our final practice session, we had to do a dry land practice indoors due to lightning and a tornado warning.
This year’s festival took place from June 23 to 26. We were thrilled to march in the Parade of Champions led by a pipe and drum band. The opening ceremonies featured local dignitaries and traditional dancing Chinese dragons. Teams demonstrated their enthusiasm with boisterous cheers. We laughed as we chanted, “Give me an Oy. Give me a Vey. What do Na’amat Newbies Say? Oy Vey!” Having raised $3,300 for local children’s charities – the second highest amount raised by a rookie team – we qualified to participate in one of the Charity Challenge Cup bonus races that evening. This was a much-needed opportunity to get extra practice and to experience what it’s like to race against other teams.
The next day, we participated in two races. Our muscles ached as we pushed ourselves to paddle hard and fast. We spent the four hours between races relaxing in our large tent that provided relief from the blazing sun. We kibitzed and noshed on the food we brought. Had there been an award for best buffet, we would have won.
Overall, we came in 187th place out of 190 teams, but, as our team captain Andrea Malek declared, “We can only go uphill from here!” We were proud of our accomplishments. We learned a new sport, exceeded our fundraising expectations, developed friendships and significantly improved with a final race time of two minutes and 53 seconds. We had a blast and we’re already planning for next year.